Friday, May 07, 2004

Dhondy vs. Dalrymple: on V.S. Naipaul and the Mughal legacy in India

A commentor on my earlier post on Gandhi, Kumar, pointed me to the exchange between Farrukh Dhondy and William Dalrymple in Outlook.

Dalrymple's essay is a critique of Naipaul's recent statement of support for the BJP, as well as of the long history of Naipaul's hostility to the Muslim legacy in India. Dhondy's essay is an attack on Dalrymple, on the grounds that he feels Naipaul's support for the BJP is actually measured and reasonable, and that Dalrymple's long critique is disproportionate to the simple statements issued by Naipaul. Dhondy also accuses Dalrymple of being an "outsider" (despite Dalrymple's distinguished career as a historian of India), and refers to him disrespectfully as "Willy."

It should be no surprise that I side strongly with Dalrymple, and condemn Dhondy's lack of civility (doesn't Outlook have an editorial policy? how did they allow all of this "Willy" business?). If I have a criticism to offer of Dalrymple, it might be that Dalrymple's essay is really most useful as a somewhat belated critique of Naipaul's books on India, particularly the 1975 book India: A Wounded Civilization. Clearly Naipaul's press conference provided merely the occasion for Dalrymple to publish an essay that explores a long career of Naipaul's misrepresentations, which have gone unchecked for more than 30 years. If Dalrymple is read as merely responding to Naipaul's statement of support for the BJP, his criticisms of Sonia Gandhi, and his closed-door meetings with the BJP cultural wing, Dalrymple's critique clearly misses the mark.

But Dalrymple offers something much more important, namely, true scholarship. Dalrymple doesn't attack Naipaul's personality, his life experience, or his status as an outsider (remember, despite his name, Vidiadhar Naipaul is as much an outsider to India as William Dalrymple). Dalrymple simply shows that the charge that the Mughals left nothing but a trail of destruction and desecration is completely untrue. The best parts of Dalrymple's essay deal with things like Mughal architecture. In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul speculates that the artisans that built the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar were all killed when the kingdom fell. In fact, there is strong evidence that they were actually re-employed by a Muslim sultan at Bijapur, where the architecture shows many visible Hindu influences. Similarly, Fatehpur Sikri, one of the great Mughal palaces (in Rajasthan, near Agra) is filled with statues that are specifically Gujurati and Hindu. Mughal architecture is in fact a distinctly Indian blend: like Ghalib, like the classic film Pakeezah, and yes, like even Shah Rukh Khan. Naipaul and Dhondy reject the Sufi culture that produced this rich strand of Indian fine art, and see only blood, desecration, and fanaticism.

The difference between the earlier Naipaul and the newer one is that the earlier Naipaul was extremely hostile to Hindu fanaticism as well as the Muslim variety. In the same book where he laments (incorrectly, according to Dalrymple) the sacking of the Hindu kingdom at Vijayanagar, Naipaul also lays into writers like R.K. Narayan for turning to a kind of Hindu quietism in response to challenges from the material world. I always felt that Naipaul was overly hostile to Narayan there. Narayan's stories do often turn to a mysticism at the conclusion, but to link that with some idea of eternal Hindu defeatism seems to overstate the case. At moments like these -- and there are many in his oeuvre -- Naipaul turns a simple lack of clarity into a bottomless fanaticism. It's especially unfortunate given how important Narayan's influence is on Naipaul's own writing. But then, Naipaul has never been afraid to bite the hand that feeds him.

(Except of course the British hand: the Queen's hand is only to be kissed.)

The newer Naipaul is at best silent on Hindu violence, and at worst, he sanctions events such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid ("I have answered this question several times. I did justify it. . . By desecrating a shrine, Babur was negating the Indian culture which was set right by the demolition ... What Babar did was wrong. He wanted to damage India’s culture. There is no point in glorifying such mistakes."). Meanwhile, he continues spout the same exaggerations about Muslim/Mughal atrocities.

At the end of his 'Rejoinder' to Dalrymple, Dhondy has this telling passage:

He [Dalrymple] is on the side of ‘secularism’. He doesn’t approve of innocent Muslims being slaughtered in pogroms by Hindu mobs in Ahmedabad while the police, under instructions from a BJP state government, stand by and let it happen. Of course he disapproves. Is his mealy-mouthed statement about V.S. Naipaul endorsing the ‘entire programme’ of the Sangh Parivar intended to imply that VS is on the other side and endorses such slaughter? (Come on Willy, get a ball transplant and say so, if that’s what you and your Indian dilettante circuit think. VS won’t read it or bother, but his agent will see you in court, in India and Vilayat, my dear!)

This is supposed to be a climactic note, where Dhondy reveals what he thinks has been at stake in Dalrymple's attack all along. But it falls entirely flat, especially when we know that Naipaul has in fact repeatedly endorsed events such as the organized mob violence of Ayodhya (I haven't seen any comments by him on Gujurat 2002). Given his statements and his current choice of friends, the onus is on Naipaul to disavow communalist sentiments. Dhondy imputes that Dalrymple has something in mind that he has not said. Actually, Dalrymple has been quite clear and forthright. Furthermore, the charges are true: Naipaul's recent statements on Indian culture and history align with those of the RSS.
So it is Dhondy who misses the mark, not Dalrymple.

[Select Comments on this post]

Dhondy vs. Dalrymple: on V.S. Naipaul and the Mughal legacy in India


On : 5/4/2004 2:19:31 PM Richard (www) said:

Yes, I've just finished reading Beyond Belief, where it does seem to me that Naipaul is going out of his way to indict islam in spite of citing several instances of other religions having practised the same doctrines Naipual castigates islam for, and even citing islam showing the same characteristics that he had stated were only shown by other religions. It's a powerful work in many ways but that kind of approach does leave one with the impression that the picture is rather lacking in depth.


On : 5/4/2004 3:44:16 PM Kumar (www) said:


I suppose I should respond to the Dhondy/Dalrymple post, but I do so with only the greatest reluctance. Past experience has shown that such exchanges tend to degenerate into verbal slugfests. Since I think that unlikely in this venue, I'll forge ahead.

First, I want no part of the Dhondy's/Dalrymple 'ad hominem trade'. And, no, I don't believe that Dalrymple suffers from a deficit.

In any case, Dhondy is on-target, not just in defending Naipaul's recent visit to the BJP's offices , but also in the larger point he makes about Dalrymple's tendency to downplay the extent of the destruction wrought by early Muslim kings. Yes, there was accomodation (architechtural, religious, etc.), but the violence of some early Muslim kings must not be downplayed.

This sort of approach serves both (historical) truth and (present-day) communal peace in India. Focusing only on the accomodation leaves the ground clear for those who wish to undermine communal amity. The latter may seem paradoxical--but keep in mind that simple acknowledgment of what happened to a particular community's ancestors, may decrease bitterness and so decrease the possibility of violence.

This statement--no argument--for my views will have to do, for now. I'm pressed for time. But in preparation for a future exchange of views, I wonder if you've read Richard Eaton's work on temple destruction in medieval India as well as the responses to Eaton's work. (Dalrymple relies heavily on Eaton among others).



On : 5/4/2004 4:41:49 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:


I removed the reference to flaming, and put in a statement explaining what was removed. Sorry I made the mistake (perhaps it's forgivable, since I didn't expect to find two people named Kumar on a single thread -- especially not on my small blog).

I accept your point, and might venture a proper response a bit later. I haven't read Eaton -- I'll look for it when I go to the library tomorrow.


On : 5/4/2004 4:54:39 PM Brey (www) said:

The line about not biting the Queen's hand is more important than you might think. Naipul is an apologist for colonial powers (Sorry for not backing that up better. But, I'm sure this is not that contentious.) And, the BJP are an extension of that power. By dividing the Indian population religiously they are furthering a tool of the British to control their colonized subservients. I think this was covered fairly well in either India: from Midnight to the Millenium or the The Idea of India. This is a quick post so sorry for the lack of supporting evidence. (But, hey, this is a blog not a seminar.)


On : 5/4/2004 8:07:47 PM Kumar (www) said:

Dr. Singh:

The initial confusion, and consequent misunderstading, is understandable: Just another day on the Web.

About Eaton: His article (he's also written a book) is available on the web--Frontline mag., I think (That's from The Hindu newspaper group).




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